When Brianna Rivera stepped into her advanced biology class at the start of her junior year at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, California, she noticed that she was one of the only girls in the class of 20, and one of the only Hispanic kids. She wasn’t excited about science, and she didn’t feel like she belonged.
Rivera was a dedicated student and gymnast who hoped to go to college even though no one in her family had ever been. The class would fulfill her high school science requirement, but she didn’t expect to enjoy it. She just needed to make it through.
But, buoyed by a Saturday science program developed and run by Stanford graduate student volunteers, she not only aced her class, but also found a passion for science — which she now embraces as a biomedical engineering major in her first year of college.
On that first day in advanced biology, Rivera was outnumbered — the only Hispanic girl among a room overwhelmingly populated by Asian American boys — even though outside the classroom it was a different story. In 2016 almost half of the school’s students were girls, and nearly 60% of its students were Hispanic, according to U.S. News & World Report, which reports data on high schools nationwide.
The student body also included 36% Asian American kids, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants from Vietnam. Sixty-three percent of all students at Andrew Hill qualified for free or reduced-price lunch programs.
“I never really felt like I fit in that classroom,” Rivera said. To succeed, though, she’d have to create and complete her own research project. “Our teacher mentioned that we might need extra guidance. He suggested that we go to the Saturday program.”
That program was FAST — Future Advancers of Science and Technology. Cooper Galvin, a graduate student in biophysics at Stanford, and four of his classmates — Andrew Kennard, Athena Ierokomos, Carlos Hernández and Derek Huang — started the program in the fall of 2015, hoping to create a space where students were encouraged to pursue a passion project in STEM through yearlong mentorships, Galvin said.
“Interesting and impactful science and engineering can be done by anyone, anywhere,” Galvin said. “All a scientist or engineer needs is curiosity or a drive to make things better, mentorship or some system of accountability, and space to do the work, or sometimes just the internet.”
Galvin met with Patrick Allamandola, a science teacher at Andrew Hill, to discuss setting up a mentoring program for students there. Allamandola was skeptical at first, concerned that overly ambitious volunteers might give up on the kids if they didn’t succeed, or that his students’ challenging living situations — some sleeping on couches, struggling to secure food or taking care of family members when their parents had to work long hours — might make it hard for them to attend, or stick with, Saturday sessions.
But as they discussed details and worked through doubts, they agreed it was worth a try. The principal and science teachers at Andrew Hill helped shape the program, designing it to spark the curiosity and creativity of the budding scientists by encouraging them to follow their own interests — also known as self-directed learning, an approach that had inspired Galvin back when he was in high school in Alaska — and providing the support to help those interests come to fruition.
Rivera was nervous and a bit intimidated when she arrived at noon on a Saturday in September 2016 to start the program. Only one of her parents — both of whom are from Mexico — finished high school and neither went to college, yet both strongly supported her dream to do so, despite her apprehensions.
“I knew that Stanford has a really big name and not many people in the history of my high school have ever been to Stanford,” Rivera said. “My parents were never into science, and no one in my family had ever been into science.”
But at that first meeting, the mentors were welcoming as they led a brainstorming session to break the ice and get students thinking about their projects. “I felt like I had no direction on where to go,” Rivera said. “But they started throwing out ideas about things I’d never even heard of before. And I started asking questions.”
She was hooked. By the next meeting, she was already working up an experiment to study the effect temperature has on the rate of the movement of molecules through cell membranes, a biological process called cellular diffusion.
“We started by talking about what we can use that we have available at our school that could mimic some sort of chemical going in and out of a cell,” Rivera said.
She went online and ordered a chemical she could use to watch transport into a cell: a fluorescent dye that binds to a cell’s DNA. She cultured and stained multiple batches of yeast, transferred the batches into small test tubes and heated them in water at different temperatures to see how heat affects the rate of diffusion.
“The procedure was something we came up with by just using a hot plate and heating up water in a beaker with a thermometer and holding the tubes slightly in the water,” she said. This “proved to be annoying, standing over a hot plate holding each tube for like 10 minutes, four times,” she said, but it worked.
How would she measure diffusion rates? Her school had an old spectrophotometer, a device that measures how much light is emitted. So she spun the tubes of cultured yeast in a centrifuge, which forced the liquid carrying DNA molecules to the top of the tube, drew off some of that liquid, and ran it through the spectrophotometer. A higher absorbance reading indicated more diffusion had occurred.
The concept of her experiment, which took about 13 weeks to complete, was “not super advanced,” Rivera said. “But the process of designing an experiment, after experiencing a lot of what felt like brick walls when it came to this methodology, was what I learned from the most.”
Her mentors coached her along the way, and guided her as she formulated a data-collection method and recorded everything in her lab notebook.
“Over the course of the school year I could see that she was gaining a lot more confidence both in her own scientific intuition but also in the troubleshooting abilities that she had,” Stanford chemistry graduate student Katie Liu said of Rivera, who joined FAST at the same time Liu became a mentor.
Building on successes
Liu, current FAST president, said the point when students start to really understand the scientific process and are confident in their own ideas is one is of the most satisfying moments of being a mentor.
“It’s inspiring to me as a scientist when I get really discouraged about my own research and I see how persistent they are,” Liu said. “I see the passion in students who definitely have a lot of other things going on in their family lives, and they still decide that FAST is important enough for them to keep showing up.”
FAST meets for five hours every other Saturday afternoon for 13 sessions. It culminates in the opportunity for students to enter their projects in a regional science fair and present their work at a Stanford symposium.
The program began with about a dozen Stanford volunteers and 45 high school students, and has since expanded into a second location — James Lick High School, also in San Jose. It now has more than 100 high school student participants and over 70 Stanford graduate student mentors. Through 2018, all graduating seniors who participated in FAST went to college, and those graduating this year plan to as well.
In the 2016-17 academic year, only two students in Rivera’s advanced biology class finished their projects in time to participate in the spring science fair, Sciencepalooza, Rivera said. She was the only girl. Her project won honorable mention for biology, and she earned an A in her class.
Rivera, Galvin recalled, was “winning prizes, keeping the model lab notebook we still show students and fostering a positive, encouraging community of peers.”
Rivera, who goes by Bri (pronounced bree), was so enthusiastic about her new passion that she changed one of her social media usernames to “Biochemisbri.”
“I became known by the whole school as the girl who loves science,” she said. “I would have underclassmen come up to me like, ‘Look, that’s Biochemisbri!’ They would ask me questions about how to join this program, or would you recommend this program. I really credit FAST with me finding myself and what I want to do in my career.”
She also said that coaching from FAST mentors helps students stick with science after high school, including managing the college application process, getting financial aid for college, and introducing them to ethics and coding. For Rivera, that training proved essential.
“They helped me apply to colleges and tried to help me find internships or summer programs to keep me involved in science,” Rivera said.
‘It was the best day of my life’
Rivera said she got the phone call notifying her that she’d been accepted into the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program while she was sipping strawberry bubble tea with a friend one afternoon late in her junior year. The program accepts fewer than 5% of applicants.
“It was the best day of my life,” Rivera said. The summer program expanded her scientific interests to bioengineering, she said. “It was like a whole new world.”
During her senior year, Rivera continued with FAST and served as an ambassador and leader for the program at Andrew Hill. She also was accepted into the bioengineering program at Boston University, and will transfer there after completing her freshman year at San Jose State University.
“Brianna understood the mission of FAST and the community at her school so well that she modified how we recruit students in order to access the students for whom we could have the greatest impact,” Galvin said. “With her help, we made YouTube videos advertising the program and sent student representatives — trained by her — to each science classroom to answer students’ questions about the program.”
Rivera was motivated “by the impact that science and engineering could have on people’s lives — both for those who practice it and those who benefit from its advances,” Galvin said.
Still, she faced some challenges while she was in the program, as do many other students. In her case, family health difficulties made it hard to attend every session in her senior year, and she missed quite a bit of school. But she said FAST helped her stay on track academically, while coaching from mentors and the scientific process itself both taught her resilience.
“I just remember feeling like a different, more mature version of myself came out of doing the program my senior year,” Rivera said.
“I didn’t know that most of the time in science, research is like 99% failure,” Rivera said, “And now, I think that’s kind of what makes science so interesting for me. The fact that it is a trial-and-error process.”
Galvin said having a space for ambitious effort and for spectacular failure is essential in learning, and mentors at any level can play a part in making that happen.
“We need safe opportunities to fail and be celebrated for trying really hard,” Galvin said. “The potential of graduate students and all sorts of professional scientists to inspire the public to engage in science, follow curiosities, get messy — no matter age, race, socioeconomic status — is sorely untapped because many feel that is the job of professors and ‘professional’ educators.”
In February 2019, Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, hosted a lunch for the FAST founders and several of its graduate student leaders. “I’m proud of them for shaping the next generation of thinkers and thankful for their strong dedication to our community,” Minor said.
Galvin and Liu are sharing their training materials and guidance with student organizations within Stanford. Their team has also begun meeting with people throughout the Bay Area who are seeking to start their own chapters of FAST or incorporate the lessons FAST has learned in its four years of operations and monitoring of student progress.
They plan to expand the academic scope of FAST into social sciences, including psychology and sociology, and into the arts. They’re also considering how to make FAST’s learning environment more inclusive of students from immigrant backgrounds.
“One idea is to have a dual-language option for students to have Spanish-speaking mentors who will work with them in Spanish half of the days during brainstorming and experimenting and English for proposal writing and practicing presenting,” Galvin said. “In this new twist on FAST, the students who are native Spanish speakers can feel empowered while still learning to navigate our English-speaking science community.”
As a Mexican American woman in bioengineering, Rivera is still outnumbered, just as she once was in her honors biology class. But discovering her passion for science and having women mentors to inspire and support her has made it easier for her to persevere.
“Though it’s not completely apparent,” she said, “you do always still feel the fact that you’re not necessarily taken seriously. But I remember, during the FAST program, when I felt like all of a sudden that feeling didn’t matter anymore. I just knew what I wanted to do, and I was so excited about it.”